Believing Is Seeing
You’ve probably heard it said – in one way or another – that perception is reality. C.S. Lewis said it this way: “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.” Emerson said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” And Anaïs Nin, an American author of Cuban dissent wrote, “We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are.”
Since today’s gospel reading uses sight to examine how we see from a spiritual perspective, I’d like to begin with a little demonstration of the assumptions that we often make in the way we see things. This will require your participation. Please place your hands down on either side of your legs. Now look straight ahead and (in one motion) lift your hands up, point to the center and touch your index fingers together. Pretty easy, right? Now do the same thing with one eye closed.
Not as easy, was it. You see, vision is made of more than just seeing things. It involves experience – in fact with repetition you can do that test easily. Vision involves shadow and light and processing all kinds of information subconsciously. And just as the systems of our bodies work together with all of our senses and faculties so that we can perceive the world around us, we also collect and collaborate our slices of reality with one another to get a bigger picture. We share and we compare to expand our understanding, but more than often we do it to validate what we think we know.
That’s where we enter the gospel story today. You can’t really blame the disciples for their curiosity. You can’t really blame them for thinking that they live in a world where God is good and just and compassionate and in control – for God certainly is. You can’t really blame them for expecting that there must be a reason for suffering, right?
So they ask what they think is the right question. Which makes me wonder – did they really want to know or did they want to show? It kind of reminds me of a guy in my theology class at seminary that would ask really obvious questions. Dr. Ottati would simply restate his point and my fellow student would say, “Oh, thanks. I was just asking for the benefit of the class.”
Well, we’ll never know whether the disciples were trying to validate themselves or understand their world. What we do know is that Jesus upended their assumptions about God and about sin and even about blindness and sight. The man was not blind from sin – not his or his parents, not even the sinful fallen nature of creation. He was simply blind.
And because he was blind – in that moment, at that time – Jesus was able to heal him, and so he did. He healed him because it was the right thing to do with that person at that time “so that God’s works may be revealed.”
And in so doing Jesus went straight from from preachin’ to meddlin’. The man didn’t even ask to be healed, but Jesus did it anyway. This caused all kinds of problems. The neighbors could not handle the fact that the man they knew as a blind beggar was no longer blind or a beggar. The Pharisees couldn’t handle the fact that Jesus healed on the Sabbath (without even forming a committee). His parents couldn’t handle the fact that their son’s good fortune impacted their place in the community.
Now, I don’t mean to be glib about that. They truly were afraid that they would be cast out of the synagogue. They were truly afraid to lose vital friendships and family ties. As real and deep and visceral as these fears were, have you noticed what’s missing most of all? No one seems to care about the fact that a man born blind could now see!
That is where the true blindness is in this story! The Pharisees were caught in this loop of expectation that blinded them to the truth and threatened their faith. Healing had been done on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was God’s gift and no work was to be done for good or for ill. But healing was also a gift from God and could not be given to a sinner. Obviously the (formerly) blind man must be a sinner, then. Either way, his existence questioned what they knew and understood to be true about God – so he had to go.
And once again Jesus came to him. Jesus pursued the man, just as the goodness and mercy of God are promised in the 23rd Psalm to pursue you and me. God pursues each of us like a beloved child lost at a fair. And God’s love for us even puts us in conflict with others when we take stands for someone that the world calls unworthy. Oh yes. There are still so many in need of healing.
And I for one know that I can do nothing until I realize that the One who was sent to heal us has come to me with spit and mud so that I may see, because I too am blinded by my assumptions about the world. We all are.
Jill Duffield, the editor for the “Presbyterian Outlook”, said it this way:
“The painful reality [is] that our assumptions [about the world] often trump the gospel truth… [She goes on to list some common assumptions that truly have no Biblical basis.] People get what they deserve (so I am not accountable for their well-being). People don't really change (so I'd be naïve to risk giving someone a second chance). Certain people are worthy to be heard (so I can ignore those I deem unworthy). We know who the worst sinners are (and we aren't them). God helps those who help themselves. If you work hard enough anyone can make it. God is on my side. Everything happens for a reason. Charity begins at home, etc., etc., etc. [These] are the bedrock assumptions upon which we construct our lives. [Are] we prepared to have them overturned by the One who is the chief cornerstone?”
Are we even prepared to ask Jesus about sin and suffering when we know that he will come to us with mud and spit and send us to the waters that will send us to places and people we have walked by but never seen before?
I don’t really care what your political positions are. There is yet suffering in the world, and it cries out for us to demonstrate the goodness and providence and mercy of the God who sets a place at the table for you and me, and a place right beside us for the one we would call
enemy - The same one that God calls beloved.
We can argue about what, and who, is legal or illegal – about what is just and unjust – but at the end of the day we will only “see” in so much as we are able to recognize where and when we have been blind. For if we spend all of our energy telling others to give glory to God and none of it on demonstrating God’s love, then we are blind to the truth.
But where and when we are able to understand that sin and suffering are an invitation to a deeper love for God and one another, we can find light and peace and truth.
My church taught me that as a child in 1979. You may remember that as the time when President Carter defied a 62% public opinion poll to double the number of refugees we accepted from Vietnam – a country that had just dealt us a bitter defeat. My congregation was helping to sponsor a family (an action that would later develop into the ecumenical sanctuary movement in the 1980’s) and I remember giving some toy cars to a boy a little younger than me. We barely made eye contact. He did not speak English. The most dissatisfying part was that I really wanted to play with him, but I never saw him again.
I don’t know what decisions, other than our language barrier, kept us apart. I am as blinded to his path as he is to mine. But I know this – he helped me to see the grace and mercy of God. Somewhere out there, right now, someone else is hoping to see how God might work through you and through me. If we can see just see ourselves as God’s beloved children, then chances are pretty good we’ll see them that way, too.
At least that’s my hope, my prayer, and my expectation as we move toward the cross and the invitation that it holds for you and for me. May God give us the vision and the strength, that we may give God all the glory. Now and always, Amen!